Posted on March 11, 2024

Classical Music’s Diversity Fat Cats

Don Baton, City Journal, February 21, 2024

In the corporate world these days, few slogans have become more hackneyed than “doing well by doing good.” As I’ve written in the past, there’s plenty of room to doubt whether classical music’s new titans of diversity—with their policing of orchestra repertoire, end-runs around the blind audition process, or “equity” trainings—are doing good. But a quick look through some of those organizations’ publicly available tax records leaves no doubt that they are doing well indeed.

Consider the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit dedicated to “transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.” Its less controversial initiatives include diversity-focused music academies for children, a 20-member professional touring chamber orchestra (the Sphinx Virtuosi), and two resident string quartets. Rather more controversially, Sphinx hosts an annual young artist competition open only to “Black and Latinx” musicians. And then there’s Sphinx’s National Alliance for Audition Support, which not only offers special mentorship to minority musicians as they prepare for professional auditions but also enters into agreements with orchestras around the country to place those musicians in fellowships and auditions for open chairs. (This list includes 100 ensembles that have contributed financially to Sphinx.) Many participating orchestras have committed to inserting Sphinx’s hand-picked mentees late in the audition process, meaning they don’t end up competing with many of the other candidates.

For the better part of a decade, individuals, orchestras, and private foundations have poured money into Sphinx and showered its founding couple—Aaron and Afa Dworkin—with accolades. As League of American Orchestras CEO Simon Woods said of the Dworkins in the fall of 2022, “They were raising the profile of the critical importance of diversity in orchestras before almost anybody was. And before the League. They were there before everybody.” Three times between 2010 and 2020, Sphinx raised over $5 million in a year. And then, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the floodgates opened. In 2021 and 2022, Sphinx styled itself as classical music’s answer to Black Lives Matter, cumulatively receiving $22 million in revenue in 2021 and 2022—over 85 percent of it from contributions.


While its executive compensation may appear particularly lavish, Sphinx is far from the only classical music organization disbursing huge sums or offering lofty titles to diversity bureaucrats. Since 2020, most top American orchestras have appointed “chief diversity officers,” many of whom have been elevated to vice presidential rank within their organizations. Frequently these positions come with gaudy salaries, as in the case of Cincinnati Symphony Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Harold Brown, who earned $179,644 in total 2022 compensation—more than all but four musicians in the orchestra. What exactly these diversity chiefs do is usually not made clear to the public. But one concrete item usually makes it onto their list of duties: deepening the orchestra’s partnership with the Sphinx Organization.